The Iran Conspiracy

In August of 1976, while working as a reporter for The Washington Post, I found myself in Tehran during what would turn out to be the final years of the Iranian monarchy. It was clear then that Mohammad Reza Shah, only the second and the last of the Pahlavi dynasty, was in difficulty. His so-called “White Revolution,” which tried to modernize Iran quickly, was meeting resistance from a deeply conservative public. Religious leaders, secular democrats, and students were restless under his monarchical dictatorship. His secret police, the Savak, were jailing and torturing dissidents. What was not clear then was that the ally the US had installed in order to hold power in the Persian Gulf was about to collapse. It happened so quickly that even the forces that brought the Shah down were taken by surprise.

For a quarter of a century after the Americans and British organized a coup against the secular-nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the Shah had been America’s man in the Persian Gulf, which American leaders saw as strategically vital because it produces the one essential commodity for the industrial world. In 1973, when Saudi Arabia embargoed oil to the United States, it was the Shah who supplied fuel for US Navy ships then in the Gulf. During the Nixon years the Shah was cast in the role of America’s surrogate and partner in preserving Western, anti-Soviet interests in the region; he received large amounts of advanced military equipment from the US. In 1976 you could fly on El Al directly from Tel Aviv to Tehran. Until the clerics came to power in 1979, both Iran and Israel found it useful to have informal diplomatic relations because both felt threatened by Iraq. As it still does, Israel sought friends among the non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East.

Now another quarter-century has passed, a very grim one for Iran as well as Western interests in the Gulf. The takeover of the American embassy in 1979 and the 444-day humiliation of American diplomats ruined relations with the United States to this day. The advent of a religiously based regime, equally or more tyrannical than the Shah’s, has changed the pattern of power in the Middle East. The regime of the ayatollahs has supported Hezbollah and other terrorists in the region, and it is accused of harboring members of al-Qaeda, which it denies.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that deposed Mossadegh and the forces allied with him struggling to create a democracy in Iran. The coup set the Shah on a course that was to end so ignobly for him and the United States twenty-six years later. According to Stephen Kinzer in his book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,

It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [the CIA’s code name for the coup] through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.

Kinzer also says that the coup against Mossadegh, the first time that the CIA had brought about a change of regime, emboldened the US to overthrow Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz,

and set off a sequence of events in that country that led to civil war and hundreds of thousands of violent deaths. Later, the CIA set out to kill or depose foreign leaders from Cuba and Chile to the Congo and Vietnam. Each of these operations had profound effects that reverberate to this day. Some produced immense misery and suffering and turned whole regions of the world bitterly against the United States.

Using new and published material, Kinzer has written a convincing account of the US conspiracy in Tehran during the summer of 1953, events so melodramatic that President Eisenhower, when he was briefed on the coup, wrote in his diary that they “seemed more like a dime novel than historical facts.” In the 1970s, when Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, was ambassador to Iran, he recalled that the Russian ambassador complained about him to the Shah. How, he asked, could the Shah accept a man of Helms’s background in secret intelligence as ambassador? The Shah, Helms told me, replied: “Well, at least I know that Americans have sent me their top spy.” Helms would later write in his memoirs that he had gotten along with the Shah because “the Shah had always been well impressed by the quality of the CIA people he had met through the years.”1

Undoubtedly the first CIA man that impressed him was Kermit Roosevelt, “Kim” to his friends, a grandson of Theodore, and a graduate of Groton and Harvard, who was recruited from college for the wartime Office of Strategic Services by Frank Wisner, who went on to become a high CIA official. By 1953 Roosevelt was in charge of Middle East operations for Wisner. As Kinzer writes, Roosevelt was dispatched to bring down Prime Minister Mossadegh, whom the Shah hated because he saw Mossadegh as a threat to his throne—although the Shah had appointed Mossadegh prime minister after he had become widely popular for leading the movement to nationalize the British oil company. The British, for their part, hated Mossadegh for having done just that. The Americans opposed him because they believed he would open the way for Communist domination of Iran. Roosevelt was smuggled into the Shah’s palace in the summer of 1953 under a rug in the back seat of a car to meet a monarch who was at that time weak, vacillating, and a very frightened young man.

The first coup attempt organized by the CIA and the British failed. Following the CIA’s advice, the chief of the royal guards brought a formal notice of dismissal to Mossadegh’s house, only to be arrested by Mossadegh’s own loyal guards. The Shah fled abroad, people came into the streets to support Mossadegh, and Roosevelt’s bosses back in Washington ordered him to leave Iran. But Roosevelt decided to have another try. He arranged for a mob of demonstrators to fill the streets in protest against Mossadegh’s government. Among them were army officers and some of the grand ayatollahs, who had been paid by Roosevelt. The demonstrators reached Mossadegh’s house and stormed in after a fight with his guards. Mossadegh took refuge with a neighbor, but surrendered the next day. The Shah returned from Italy in triumph to tell Roosevelt: “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army—and to you!” It was, as Helms would later write, “the high tide of covert action.” Put on trial for treason, Mossadegh denounced foreign conspiracies against him; after three years in prison he was put under house arrest until he died in 1967.

Mossadegh was a unique figure in the history of the twentieth century. With a huge nose and “basset-hound eyes,” he was aristocratic and imposing—his father had been a minister in the court of a former king and he had been educated in France and Switzerland. He was a nationalist who vehemently and uncompromisingly opposed British petroleum concessions in his country. By force of personality, Mossadegh shoulders everyone else aside in Kinzer’s narrative. (He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951.)

Kinzer quotes Averell Harriman’s impressions of Mossadegh:

He projected helplessness; and while he was obviously as much a captive as a leader of the nationalist fanatics, he relented on nothing. Under pressure he would take to his bed, seeming at times to have only a tenuous hold on life itself as he lay in his pink pajamas, his hands folded on his chest, eyes fluttering and breath shallow. At the appropriate moment, though, he could transform himself from a frail, decrepit shell of a man into a wily, vigorous adversary.

Mossadegh had real illnesses—Kinzer is vague about what they were—but he knew how to use them in the political theater he created, driving his foes and some would-be friends to distraction. Winston Churchill, who had much to do with Mossadegh’s fall, called the Iranian leader “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists.” But Churchill was steeped in the importance of the British Empire, and had trouble adjusting to third-world nationalists.

When he was put on trial, Mossadegh said: “My only crime is that I nationalized the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth.” He meant the British, not the US, and he was largely right. Oil had been of paramount importance to Britain ever since the Royal Navy switched from coal in the early years of the century. Lord Curzon said that in World War I the Allies had “floated to victory on a wave of oil,” and in World War II Britain was even more dependent on oil. The postwar British government, under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was opposed to sharing control with Iran of the Anglo-Persian, later Anglo-Iranian, Oil Company. Iran in those days was the world’s fourth-biggest oil exporter, supplying Europe with 90 percent of its petroleum. The British were unwilling to make any compromise with the nationalist feelings of Iranians. They would not even consider sharing oil revenues equally as the Americans were doing in Saudi Arabia.

In the early 1950s Britain was not content with being a second-tier country as it is today; it still sought to maintain itself not only as a world force but as a colonial power. Anglo-Iranian oil was 51 percent owned by the British government, and a great share of the profits went straight into the British Treasury. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was frank in saying that without Iran’s oil there would be no “hope of our being able to achieve the standard of living at which we are aiming in Great Britain.” But more than money was at stake. The British had built the Iranian oil industry from nothing and they believed it was theirs to control.

Mossadegh said they could not. A more practical politician, Kinzer writes, might have struck a deal. “But Mossadegh,” he writes,

was not a pragmatist. He was a visionary, a utopian, a millenarian. The single-mindedness with which he pursued his campaign against Anglo-Iranian made it impossible for him to compromise when he could and should have.

Kinzer adds that Mossadegh’s attitude fitted in with Iran’s Shiite Muslim faith, with its traditions of martyrdom; he was willing, even eager, to accept pain for a cause.

The Americans were caught in the middle. On the one hand Truman thought the British attitude was “block-headed,” and against their own interests. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, paraphrasing Churchill’s famous remark about the Battle of Britain: “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast.” For although the British blustered, threatened invasion, and sent warships to intimidate him, Mossadegh went ahead and nationalized the oil and threw the British out. The British countered by blocking Iran’s exports of oil, so Iran’s economy spiraled down as did Britain’s.

America’s ambassador to Tehran, Henry Grady, cabled Washington that “the British…seem to be determined to follow the old tactics of getting the government out with which it has difficulties. Mossadegh has the backing of 95 to 98 percent of the people of this country. It is utter folly to push him out.” Truman and Acheson agreed.

In the current age of American unilateralism and preemptive military interventions, it is hard to remember that just after World War II America still stood for something quite different in the Middle East. Although the US emerged from the war as “the leader of the free world,” the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese still ruled over vast empires. To many colonized people the United States was identified with Wilsonian idealism and anticolonialism. Franklin Roosevelt several times changed his mind about whether or not the French should re-occupy Indochina after World War II. American agents of the OSS had met with Ho Chi Minh in his forest hideouts.

In the nineteenth century, Americans had come to the Middle East not as conquerors and colonial administrators but as educators, often Presbyterian, who sought not to convert but to give help. Institutions such as Roberts College in Istanbul, American University of Beirut, and American University in Cairo educated the sons of the Middle Eastern elites. In Iran the American-founded Alborz College was, Kinzer writes, “among the first modern secondary schools in the country, and thousands of its graduates went on to shape Iranian life.”

In the early 1950s Stephen Penrose, a president of American University of Beirut, wrote:

Until recently American enterprise in the Middle East has been almost entirely non-governmental, an important difference from most other national patterns. Americans have never been seen as colonizers or subjugators and it is hard even now for most Arabs to conceive of them as such.2

Kinzer writes that the few Americans that Iranians “had come to know were generous and self-sacrificing, interested not in wealth or power but in helping Iran.”

All of this changed in the 1950s, when America supplanted Britain as the guarantor of “stability” in the Persian Gulf. “Americans were indeed latecomers to the Middle East,” Kinzer writes. “The British scorned them as inexperienced and naive. To a degree they were. They were instinctively repelled by Britain’s colonial arrogance, especially in Iran, but they did not have enough self-confidence to act decisively on their own.”

The CIA was still, early in 1953, a junior partner of the more experienced British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), or MI6. But the Mossadegh coup marked the end of British dominance in secret intelligence matters. The transition from junior to senior partner was described by the CIA’s Donald Wilber, who wrote that it

quickly became apparent that the SIS was perfectly content to follow whatever lead was taken by the Agency…. The British were very pleased at having obtained the active cooperation of the Agency and were determined to do nothing which might jeopardize US participation. At the same time there was faint envy expressed over the fact that the Agency was better equipped in the way of funds, personnel and facilities than was SIS.

Britain had begun to see itself as Greece to America’s Rome—more cultured, experienced, and wily, but recognizing where real power now lay.

In 1946, the Philippines, America’s only Asian colony, became independent. By the 1950s US policy was divided in its approach to third-world nationalism in the former colonies of Britain and France. Harry Truman backed some nationalist movements, hoping they would view the United States as their true benefactor rather than the Soviet Union. But the US by the late Forties supported the French in Indochina, spending more on the French military effort there than on the Marshall Plan in France itself. The US was also concerned to protect British interests in the Persian Gulf.

In 1954 Eisenhower refused to stave off a French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and two years later his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, told the British, French, and Israelis that their attempt to bring down Nasser by seizing the Suez Canal had no American backing, which forced their withdrawal. But with the Korean War still being fought in 1953, and Eisenhower new to his office, the British view of Iran as vulnerable to Soviet pressure carried the day.

The war in Korea changed America’s outlook and policies as surely as did the attack on September 11 in the current administration. The invasion from the north came in June of 1950, and convinced the United States that the Western nightmare of expanding, militant communism was coming true. The Korean War coincided with the growing crisis over Iran’s nationalization of its oil industry, and had the effect of narrowing Washington’s differences with the British at Iran’s expense. Korea played into the American decision to reverse its early opposition to an anti-Mossadegh coup. Coincidentally, the Korean War ended in July 1953, while Roosevelt was plotting his coup.

The Truman administration had resisted any attempt to depose Mossadegh, still believing that, as a secular liberal with the support of his people, he would be a stronger force against communism than a pro-British stooge. Truman and Acheson again and again encouraged Mossadegh to compromise with the British, only to fail.

Kinzer quotes The New York Times saying that “many Middle East specialists considered Mossadegh a liberator comparable to Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine.” By contrast the usually liberal Observer of London described Mossadegh as a “Robespierre fanatic” and a “tragic Frankenstein… obsessed with one xenophobic idea,” i.e., kicking the British out of the Iranian oil business.

In 1951, while Mossadegh was visiting Washington, the Americans made one last attempt to get him to compromise. When they pointed out to him that he would return home empty-handed, he replied: “Don’t you realize that in returning to Iran empty-handed, I return in a much stronger position than if I returned with an agreement which I would have to sell to my fanatics?” Mossadegh’s reply was as frustrating for Americans then as Yasser Arafat’s refusal to compromise with President Clinton and the Israelis was in 2000. But Arafat seems to have had similar sentiments. What seems obvious in the Western world is seldom what seems obvious east of Suez.

The election of Winston Churchill over Clement Attlee in 1952 was fatal for Mossadegh; so was the replacement of Truman and Acheson by Dwight Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers, John Foster Dulles at the State Department, and Allen Dulles at the CIA. Churchill charged that Attlee had “scuttled and run” from Iran “when a splutter of musketry would have ended the matter.” Ike was a little more reluctant to intervene in Iran, but Churchill made much of the Communist threat, also reminding Eisenhower that he owed Britain a favor because the British had sent troops to Korea. Churchill’s dogmatic convictions about Iran would be echoed half a century later by Tony Blair’s certainties about the danger from Iraq.

In Kinzer’s account of the coup, the eager Dulles brothers get authorization for a coup from Eisenhower, who didn’t want to know the details. In his own book, Richard Helms wrote:

In a very short time, and in my view with perhaps too little reflection, covert action had become a favored instrument. Diplomacy had its uses, but in those years the impatient Eisenhower administration had convinced itself that even the most effective diplomacy took too much time and the result was often uncertain.

The US policy toward Iran of the Truman years was reversed.

The parallels between the views of today’s conservatives in the administration of George W. Bush and those of the Dulles brothers are all too clear. Helms called the covert action favored by the Dulleses a “foreign policy panacea.” Neoconservatives in the current Bush administration see “regime change” in much the same way. One big difference is that during the cold war, America sought allies in its confrontation with the Soviet Union, while today, with the Soviet Union gone, the neoconservatives who dominate policy seem contemptuous of allies.

To me the single most revealing quote in Kinzer’s story comes when John Foster Dulles is explaining to a reluctant Ike why the US needs to intervene in Iran. His words, as reported by the official note-taker, were:

The probable consequences [of doing nothing]…would be a dictatorship in Iran under Mossadegh. As long as the latter lives there was little danger, but if he were to be assassinated or removed from power, a political vacuum would occur in Iran and the Communists might easily take over. [emphasis added]

In short, Mossadegh himself was not the problem. But he had to go be-cause of what might happen if Communists succeeded him. That Mossadegh was a popular nationalist who resisted Western tutelage didn’t help. The Bush doctrine of preemption—waging preventive wars because of possible threats, not actual ones—is hardly new.

The coup itself, as Kinzer acknowledges, was originally planned by the British SIS. Some British readers will say Kinzer gives the CIA too big a role. The British conceived of a rent-a-crowd strategy, by which they could hire gangs of thugs as provocateurs assigned to stir up people at state rallies. They could find people who would demonstrate for Mossadegh and then find others to demonstrate against him. The aim was to create chaos so that the military could step in to restore order. But Mossadegh expelled the British, who then turned over their Iranian agents to the CIA. Mossadegh still continued to trust the Americans, not realizing the change that had come with the new Republican administration. Kermit Roosevelt played the cards the British had dealt him brilliantly, and the second coup was all his doing.

Was it worth it? Kermit Roosevelt remained convinced that it was until he died in 2000. Kinzer quotes a different view from his British counterpart, Christopher “Monty” Woodhouse, who wrote in his own memoirs: “It is easy to see Operation Boot,” the British name for Ajax,

as the first step towards the Iranian catastrophe of 1979. What we did not foresee was that the Shah would gather new strength and use it so tyrannically, nor that the US government and the Foreign Office would fail so abjectly to keep him on a reasonable course. At the time we were simply relieved that a threat to British interests had been removed.

For the British it was enough that they would regain some control of Iran’s oil.

For Churchill it was about oil. For Eisenhower, it was about communism. “It was a question of much bigger policy than Iran,” one of the last surviving members of Operation Ajax, John Waller, told Kinzer.

It was about what the Soviets had done and what we knew about their future plans. It’s interesting to see what Russia put on its priority list, what it wanted. Iran was very high on it. If anybody wasn’t worried about the Soviet menace, I don’t know what they could have been believing in. It was a real thing.

In fact, what the Soviets were thinking at the time has never been revealed. Kinzer tells us that his repeated requests for archival information on that period have not been granted by the Russians. But neither Waller nor anyone else Kinzer talked to was able to make a case that a Mossadegh regime would have increased Soviet power, only that it might have.

Toward the end of his excellent book, Kinzer cites historians who argued that the coup “bought the United States and the West a reliable Iran for twenty-five years.” He concludes:

That was an undoubted triumph. But in view of what came later, and the culture of covert action that seized hold of the American body politic in the coup’s wake, the triumph seems much tarnished. From the seething streets of Tehran and other Islamic capitals to the scenes of terror attacks around the world, Operation Ajax has left a haunting and terrible legacy.

Certainly the coup was remembered by the Iranian hostage takers of 1979. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has justified the regime’s radicalism by saying: “We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadegh, whom the CIA can snuff out.” But the more telling quote comes from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who all along opposed Mossadegh and finally replaced the Shah. He said: “Why do you talk of the Shah, Mossadegh, money? These have already passed. Islam is all that remains.”

The Islamic revival is the most potent political force in the Middle East today, transcending the divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. It seems to me likely that a movement of this magnitude would have occurred, and was occurring, anyway without the help of an Anglo-American coup. In Kinzer’s cautionary tale of unintended consequences, it is hard to find a clear link between the coup against the nationalistic Mossadegh and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

Today, fifty summers later, the younger generation in Iran has become fed up with the heavy-handed theocratic regime it has endured since 1979. Will the United States allow changes to occur without interference? Or will modern counterparts of the Dulleses, impatient with diplomacy, plot new covert actions and attempt to force regime change as their panacea for foreign policy? In June, Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to an international meeting in the Middle East, went out of his way to dismiss any suggestions that the US would take hostile action against Iran. But as he spoke some in the Pentagon were talking about covert action against Iran. “Bush Pressed to Pursue ‘Regime Change’ in Iran,” ran a June headline in the Financial Times.

In many ways America’s obsession with terrorism since September 11 is an echo of its obsession with communism fifty years ago. Today the United States and Britain claim they must occupy Iraq because of the threat of terrorism. Officially, both say they want to get out as soon as possible; but ideologues in the Pentagon dream of Iraq advancing America’s interests, and Israel’s too, in the Persian Gulf as the Shah once did. Talk of a new American imperialism is becoming fashionable among conservative academics, some of them in power. They forget the lesson of British experience, which is that when a people will no longer accept it, foreign domination is almost impossible to maintain. Kinzer begins his book with an apt quote from President Truman: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

  1. 1

    Richard Helms, A Look Over My Shoulder (Random House, 2003), p. 419.

  2. 2

    Reprinted in the Beirut Daily Star, August 17, 2002.